Scott Morrison is probably to be congratulated for his calmness this week in resisting demands, even from his own side, that he or the Commonwealth "do something" about the parlous bushfire situation on the eastern coast. The particular issue seemed to be the pall of smoke and cinders that hung over Sydney and even Canberra, bringing air pollution levels to Beijing or Delhi standards.
Perhaps he ought to have done "something", not least about climate change, ages ago. Had he done so, it is likely, if not certain, that the severity, extent, earliness and number of recent fires might have been lessened. Certainly, he should be doing "something" in the future, because if he does not do much more about climate change, it will probably be too late for the world, and Australia, to avoid temperature increases and changed regional climate patterns almost certain to be disastrous for our agriculture and standard of living.
But whether he needed to do some dramatic act - with immediate effect - to show that he was now "in charge" of the bushfire menace is another matter. Particularly if its effect was to make the Commonwealth the first port of call for a disaster.
Morrison has any number of ministerial and bureaucratic empire builders keen to nationalise every problem, at enormous lasting expense, doubtful effectiveness and a serious want of accountability. Look at what has happened to intelligence and security - responsibility for which, as it happens, is within the same portfolio now "managing" Commonwealth responsibilities in relation to bushfires.
The sooner Morrison acts to strengthen policies designed to reduce emissions the better, although I do not have my hopes up. But nothing he can immediately achieve with the instant bushfire menace can much affect measures to reduce Australian emissions over time.
This was a week in which an international report rated Australia 57th - just about bottom - for policy responses and action on climate change. The government's complacency - or flat-out unwillingness to cut ties or break ranks with its fossil fuel mates - is staggering. It is not that the government lacks expert advice, least of all about what constitutes minimally acceptable action. Nor is the problem one of taking action being unwelcome or unpalatable in the electorate.
The urgent need for stronger measures against emissions was at the back of increasingly strident demands for action by Morrison this week. But the immediate urgent action that seemed to be demanded was for the Commonwealth, somehow, to take charge of the "war" against the bushfires, with the immediate deployment of many more resources, including our armed forces.
A good many of these arguments seemed to revolve around the syllogism: "We must do something. This [a federal takeover] is something. Therefore we must do it." That, and ad hoc crisis responses with a prospect of permanence, have been the foundation of countless policy disasters since federation. It is really about time that politicians and bureaucrats learnt something from them. Thank heavens that Morrison's tendency to inaction and resistance to criticism, right or wrong, is staying his hand.
The calm being displayed by Morrison is in the face of strong criticism of his stewardship, of his continuing obtuseness about the relationship between fires and climate change, and dark hints that he was off on holidays as the nation, or his city, prepared to burn. It would have panicked quite a few of his predecessors. By now we would have had some impromptu, unconsidered and half-baked public relations announcement from a Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, or, usually, John Howard. But Morrison, it seems, is not for turning. Or for burning either.
He knows, first, that the states, particularly NSW and Queensland, can have additional Commonwealth resources, including soldiers, if they ask for it. If the call comes, it will not be refused, and resources can be quickly deployed. The states have not asked. Half-baked ideas about using Defence Force equipment such as aircraft to dump water on fires can be resisted simply on grounds of practicality - or, if one wants, with doubts no one usually dare express about whether aerial firefighting is very effective or value for money.
He knows, second, that there is nothing he can do in the short term about the pall of smoke and ash settling over Sydney and Canberra, anymore than he can do anything much immediately about dust storms. These come from the weather - which even his God seems unwilling to control at his behest.
Another claimed ground for intervention is that firefighters, not least volunteers, are by now very tired and exhausted, and need relief. Morrison made ill-advised comments about how volunteers just love to fight fires, implying that they could only be spelled or pulled from the front with great difficulty because of their zest for action, danger, and the exhilaration of saving lives and property.
But state, regional and local bushfire authorities are generally very experienced at managing and deploying firefighters and their gear. Their work is supplemented by other bushfire units from elsewhere in the state, from other states, or, these days, from overseas.
There's no doubting that the Commonwealth ought to - must - help states and territories swamped by emergencies such as drought, floods or bushfires, or by other disasters, natural or man-made, such as pandemics (including those involving animals such as pigs, a currently serious risk), cyclones, earthquakes, major aircraft accidents, or serious terrorism incidents. Because of climate change, the likelihood is that there will be more, not fewer, natural disasters in the future.
With all of these, Commonwealth and state emergency management authorities, as well as police, the military, the bureaucracies, and the politicians, have long had broad understandings about division of responsibilities, and the point at which, constitutionally, the states can call upon the extra resources of the Commonwealth. We have also planned for natural and other disasters abroad, including rescuing Australian citizens in danger. Thus we have plans for emergency evacuations, for crisis assistance after cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and other catastrophes. Long term, the Defence Force, if not politicians, has been working on contingencies for climate change disaster, particularly in our Pacific neighbourhood, but also with an eye to the displacement problems that sea-level increases could cause in nations such as Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
We now have a standing bureaucracy devoted to such things. Once we didn't, but we seemed to manage well enough. If, for example, there were floods in Queensland, the local, state and federal politicians would know almost as soon as anyone else, be soon on the ground for public relations purposes, and be engaged in political discussions about what resources ought to be brought to bear.
If the Prime Minister thought the army and some of its equipment could be useful, it would be a view directly conveyed to the army, and deployment would quickly begin without a great deal of bureaucracy, memoranda of understanding, protocols or "rules of engagement". People would just get on with it. Centrelink or Social Services would be quick to suggest emergency schemes to help victims, and, if adopted by government, they could be promulgated quickly with media fanfare but also through the local and regional offices of the affected agencies.
Somewhere or other some Department of Finance person would be hovering about noting the arrangements, asking the appropriate questions, and putting "parameters" on decisions bureaucrats or ministers thought they had made. All in all about half a dozen Commonwealth bureaucrats might be involved, and with no apparent lesser efficiency than the massive bureaucracy that has settled on the "problem" today.
If Morrison wanted to actually 'do something' about the natural consequences of his policy disasters, he would be better putting public servants back into rural and regional areas.
There would not be an array of departmental divisions and branches in Canberra engaged in "co-ordinating" all of this impromptu assistance. Nor, in a desperate effort to justify a continuing existence for the many months of the year in which there were no natural disasters, would we have these agencies imagining and inventing new "scenarios" for which we "ought" to be prepared, requiring fresh staff, functions, conferences, co-ordination and liaison. Improvisation and adapting to circumstance is one of the things our action-oriented folk are good at. Fixed arrangements, efforts to make the disaster fit the plan rather than the other way around, is what we are never good at. And we don't get better at it with conferences, long discussions by non-actors of the "learnings" from catastrophes, writing draft protocols, or, generally, trying to hog all of the space, and most of the credit, for anything that the Commonwealth actually does. The dead phraseology of such talking-rather-than-doing agencies - Home Affairs' last annual report, for example, talks about the National Resilience Taskforce having "engaged with stakeholders to develop national disaster risk information capability, progress guidance on disaster risk assessment and management, and explore options for targeted investment in reducing disaster risk and vulnerabilities", is a giveaway to the fact that they are an embuggerance rather than facilitator of effective action.
Most of the offered "co-ordination" is of little practical use to the doers. Likewise, the prosecution of a permanent ambition - that some Canberra suit should be put in overall charge of managing everything, even at the state level - is treated with derision by the states. But some of the states, alas, are in the process of deciding that they too need an army of administrators to colonise and civilise the issue of better planning, co-ordination and management of disasters - generally at some distance from those who actually do the job.
The hope of any bureaucratic emergency management organisation is that the media will agree in advance to receive and publish information only with the leave of some public relations official. Just to reinforce the point, and this desire to "control the message", suits inside the organisation will probably be told that they will breach the Crimes Act if they communicate directly with the media. As often as not, some favoured journalists will get inside access to information, as a reward for patient and uncritical stenography.
Experience shows that this neither improves the reputation of an agency, nor its capacity to control the message. All the more so when the genuine information can be obtained from more media-savvy and forthcoming folk actually in charge of fighting the fire, the flood or the epidemic. Such people actually need to communicate with residents in the path of fires, and warn of likely developments.
My leeriness about more Canberra co-ordination is based on experience with alternatives, even in bigger disasters. One Christmas Day, 45 years ago, I stumbled early into work at The Canberra Times and discovered - I was probably about the 10th person in Canberra who did - that Darwin had been blown away overnight by Cyclone Tracy, that communications, even military communications, were down, and that a major national disaster - the biggest Australia has known, before or since - was on our hands.
The homes of 41,000 people were flattened. Only about 200 of 10,000 houses were largely undamaged. Almost all of the public infrastructure - though mercifully not the hospital and the police station - was destroyed, including almost all the power, water supplies and sewerage systems. At the airport, 31 aircraft were destroyed and 25 badly damaged. The death toll was 66, of whom 22 died at sea. About 35,000 people - most of the civilian population - had to be evacuated from the city. Within a week, about 25,000 had been removed by air, and 10,000 by road. The Commonwealth made extensive arrangements for providing evacuees with emergency assistance at their new homes. The management of this was smooth and effective, without layers of co-ordination.
In those days the Natural Disasters Organisation, located inside the Defence Department, was a platoon compared with the regiment of today. Moreover Darwin (in those days before self-government) was a direct Commonwealth responsibility. Within hours the organisation's head, General Alan Stretton, had received unprecedented emergency powers from the acting prime minister, Lance Barnard, and was at Canberra Airport. He commandeered a Hercules, and was busily supervising its loading, with tents, water purifiers and the like, cadged from the Army and Navy. He was soon in the air. A very able deputy, Reno van Vardanega, was managing relationships with the political and bureaucratic establishment and information flow from Canberra - with great difficulty given the communications problems, not to mention the desire of ministers to go to the scene so they could look important. But the merest journalist could ring him up on the phone, and he actually gave out information - generally all he knew - rather than spin or messages marketing his minister or his organisation.
Within a week or so, a Darwin reconstruction commission had been appointed, led by Tony Powell, also head of Canberra's National Capital Development Commission. It was set a task of rebuilding the city in five years, and more or less achieved this, even if, by the time the city's population was back to pre-Tracy levels in the early 1980s, 60 per cent of the population was new.
I could well imagine that these days the bureaucracy that managed the disaster and the reconstruction, not including the builders brought in, would be 20 or 30 times that of the quickly improvised staff who managed the crisis in 1974. Though there were a lot of overlapping responsibilities, most of the jurisdictional arguments were resolved by phone calls or settled by furious arguments in the commission, after which decisions stuck. I am not aware of any agencies which had to appoint a co-ordinating branch, or division, to manage their liaison with other agencies. Nor did the administrative task leave lasting monuments, or organisations left in being in case we had to do the same thing again. The NDO reverted to its pre-disaster size and functions.
In those days, of course, a much smaller Commonwealth bureaucracy actually had a presence in cities and towns around Australia. They were an intelligence service for governments (the politicians) and government (the public administration). They could also manage ad hoc drought relief or regional employment schemes.
The abandonment by Commonwealth officials of so much of rural and regional Australia, in the name of contracting out and efficiency dividends, has helped create some of the problems of rural depopulation and diminished local economies and infrastructure. It's the modern version of the supposed Brisbane Line of 1941.
If Morrison wanted to actually "do something" about the natural consequences of his policy disasters, he would be better putting public servants back into rural and regional areas, directly providing Commonwealth-level goods and services such as drought relief, employment, welfare and health services. Not looking to impose transfers on whole agencies, Barnaby Joyce-style, but in restoring service provision where people need it.
That would do a good deal better than imagining any Commonwealth takeovers of functions best managed locally, or in developing the bloat of co-ordinating bureaucracies inside his Canberra bubble. We need Morrison to take charge of making effective national climate change policy, not making himself look busy and concerned about an immediate bushfire crisis where he has little to offer.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.